2019-01-25

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

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by Neil Godfrey

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.


Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


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17 Comments

  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-01-26 00:22:21 GMT+0000 - 00:22 | Permalink

    Isn’t the Midrashic character of the gospels consistent with a conspiracy to invent a human Messiah? Why then were the Gospels concocted ? Who could have facilitated this brilliant and technical propagandistic plan amid the turmoil of the Roman oppression, zealous Jewish undercurrents and factional infighting ? Who would have benefited from disarming the zealotry, harnessing the power of the Old Testament prophecies and angelology and playing into the hands of the Romans ? The Romans of course ! With help from the inside, namely the Herods and Alexandrians. Not being a Christian, these conclusions make sense. Those bloggers who are still Christians will need to maintain that a benevolent God has unfolded his plan of salvation for the world perfectly and that all this confusion over who wrote the gospels and why is just Satanic distraction from our need to humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God and accept Christ’s forgiveness.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-01-26 04:08:38 GMT+0000 - 04:08 | Permalink

      Isn’t the Midrashic character of the gospels consistent with a conspiracy to invent a human Messiah?

      “Consistent with” is not “evidence of”. There is no evidence of a conspiracy. A “human messiah” was accepted by Jews from the very first notions of a messiah — Old Testament is full of “human messiahs[anointed ones]”.

      Who could have facilitated this brilliant and technical propagandistic plan amid the turmoil of the Roman oppression, zealous Jewish undercurrents and factional infighting ?

      Brilliant plan? Technical plan? Propagandistic plan?

      There is “no brilliant and technical propagandistic plan” being discussed. Such a plan is entirely in your own imagination. It has nothing to do with the contents of the writings we are analyzing.

      Who would have benefited from disarming the zealotry, harnessing the power of the Old Testament prophecies and angelology and playing into the hands of the Romans ?

      There was no “disarming the zealotry” connected in any way with the gospels. There is no evidence for any such claim. All the evidence we have from Roman times makes it clear that Jewish “zealotry” was “disarmed” by the military power of Rome. Gospels had nothing to do with it.

      What OT prophecies had any “powers”? What “angelology” is relevant here? This is all conspiracy talk without any basis in the data.

    • Steven Watson
      2019-02-09 06:44:29 GMT+0000 - 06:44 | Permalink

      On the contrary: if you are going to read it that way, what emerges is Jesus orchestrating an elaborate suicide-by-cop. Which is just bloody silly.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2019-02-09 07:24:00 GMT+0000 - 07:24 | Permalink

        “crackpot”, “bloody silly”, “laughable” — how about some serious attempt to demonstrate that you actually understand the argument you are addressing and the evidence in its favour (or at least ask if you don’t) before setting down cheap dismissals. I try here to set out arguments fairly and to address them seriously.

        • Steven Watson
          2019-02-09 22:50:05 GMT+0000 - 22:50 | Permalink

          I’m replying to Grullemans and its a reference to Hugh J Schonfield’s The Passover Plot. Sorry, it’s my bad if I’ve misplaced the reply. I am not ever getting at you (except when I am, of course. 🙂 ) You’re an epitomist and a damned good one. I’m not at heart a fence-sitter and I can be a sarky bugger. If you want sweetness and light, I’m afraid that’s likely not to be me a lot of the time. WYSIWYG.

          “laughable” that would be in reference to Wadjbaum/Gmirkin, yes? The short form encapsulation of my criticism is there: I don’t think the argument allows enough time or space for the Tanakh to come into being, and there are too many disparate voices for it to be the work of one author or even a comitee. Then there is ANE literature… I read this out of interest and for leisure; you want walls of text? I’d be here ’til the middle of next week and you’d be even sicker of hearing from me – be careful what you ask for.

          Anywho, that’ll have to do for now; prior engagement. I’ll take on board what you say and try and be more extensive in my replies in future.
          Again, don’t take me the wrong way, please. I do hold this blog in quite high esteem, honest! TTFN.

          • Neil Godfrey
            2019-02-09 23:10:42 GMT+0000 - 23:10 | Permalink

            I appreciate your compliments on the blog. But I’d like to hold your reins in a little and encourage you to read and think more carefully about some of the posts you find too radical. I don’t mean you have to agree with them but at least address the arguments themselves and do work on setting a higher standard than the Hurtados, Ehrmans and O’Neills by refraining from derogatory and condescending language.

            Yes, you have alluded the points made by conventional scholarship on the OT, but simply repeating those without actually addressing the alternative information that has been set out as a challenge to that conventional wisdom does not advance the debate. It reduces us to just spinning wheels and not going anywhere. How do you explain the absence of comparable ideas among Mesopotamian, Levantine and Egyptian cultures while there is a very rich match of those ideas in the Greek world. Especially important in my view is the narrative structures and styles of the stories and histories in the Jewish Scriptures that clearly are far more akin to Herodotus, for example, than any pre-Hellenistic literature in the Middle East.

  • Nathan
    2019-01-26 01:55:18 GMT+0000 - 01:55 | Permalink

    Milikowsky’s interpretation of that Bavli midrash is really problematic. For one thing, it completely belies the views of traditional interpreters. Rashi, for instance, concluded on the basis of the midrash that Jacob must have only appeared to have been dead to those who embalmed him, while others suggested Jacob did die but lived on in a spiritual sense. In other words, traditional interpreters derived certain historical facts about Jacob from the midrash.

    Also, Milikowsky is patently wrong when he asserts that “Rabbi Yitzhak’s … citation of [Jeremiah] is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement [about Jacob avoiding death].” In fact, in the Talmud R. Yitzhak’s words “I am expounding scripture” and the citation from Jeremiah that follows, are linked by the words “as it is stated,” telling us in no uncertain terms what the source of his claim about Jacob is—i.e., Jacob did not die, “as it is stated” in Jeremiah. So, Milikowsky is imposing on the midrash by claiming its real source is the absence of “any verb from the root … ‘to die'” in the Genesis narrative—a point which the midrash itself takes no interest in at all.

    Milikowsky is also wrong when he claims that R. Yitzhak felt misunderstood by R. Nachman:

    You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.

    R. Nachman does express puzzlement at R. Yitzhak’s claim about Jacob, but R. Yitzhak merely clarifies that he’s arrived at such an opinion—that Jacob did not die—on the basis of expounding scripture, specifically a verse from Jeremiah. Milikowsky’s interpolation of “You have misunderstood me” is nothing more than misguided wishful thinking. He is, in effect, twisting the sense of the passage so as to provide a basis for his own novel take on the significance of the midrash.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-01-26 04:29:38 GMT+0000 - 04:29 | Permalink

      From https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/FullTalmud.pdf

      p. 10
      After having finished their meal, he said: “So said R. Johanan: ‘Jacob our father never died.'” And R. Na’hman rejoined: “Then was it in vain that he was mourned and embalmed?” And R. Itz’hak replied: “I make this assertion from the following passage [Jeremiah, xxx. 10]: ‘And thou, do not fear, O my servant Jacob, saith the Lord, and be not dismayed, O Israel; for, behold, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be at rest, and be secure, with none to terrify him.’ And Jacob is compared to his children; as the latter are still living so is he also.” 1

      10:1 The commentary of Tosphath says that it is a noteworthy fact that while the Scriptures state that Abraham and Isaac died, they say that Jacob “departed this life” [Gen. xlix. 33].

    • Steven Watson
      2019-02-09 07:05:29 GMT+0000 - 07:05 | Permalink

      Israel is Jacob’s name, the name of a state, and the name of a people. Once this is realised, further explication is unnecessary. Much else relies on this deliberate conflation but this is not the place for that.

  • Pingback: Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true — Vridar | James' Ramblings

  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-01-26 05:14:14 GMT+0000 - 05:14 | Permalink

    Neil by consistency I did not say evidence, that’s putting words in my mouth. And by referring to the invention of a human Messiah I did not mean that this was a radical new idea; I was inferring that the right conditions existed to crystalise the concept, to euhemerise, as Richard Carrier puts it. My understanding remains that Christianity was a brilliant, technical and propagandistic plan. I think it is a fraud. So let’s agree to differ, as your focus and emphasis are different to mine. From your other posts I take it that you do not hold as I do to the militant backdrop in the first half of the first century, which I rather do infer from my understanding of the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While I see more credibility in Atwill’s views than you do. I do wish want to remain open on this and take on board the arguments.

    Aren’t we discussing how Midrashic statements have twisted the original meanings of what was or became OT scripture ? In the words of the rabbis, we are looking for “what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context”.

    Again, the rabbis put it that “Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God.” I reckon the NT does the same, it is a Midrash on the OT.

    The power of the prophecies was to convince the masses that the NT was true by making it appear that they were fulfilled.

    I see angelology as relevant in the formulation of the NT and the concept of the Messiah. I see Christianity drawing heavily on Gnosticism, as the Paul writings evidence. Midrash on the OT with its hocus pocus of Abraham, Issac, Jacob and Jahveh is in the same vane as the NT but I take your point if you are saying let’s stick with the OT in this post.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-01-26 05:52:36 GMT+0000 - 05:52 | Permalink

      Neil by consistency I did not say evidence, that’s putting words in my mouth.

      You misread me. I know you didn’t say or mean “evidence”. That was my point.

  • Bob Moore
    2019-01-26 15:57:20 GMT+0000 - 15:57 | Permalink

    Rabbi Yitzhaq seems to suggest that his method of Bible elucidation is motivated by him wanting to get at the message from God. The author of Mark suggests a similar motive: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus…” Are they both resorting anachronistically to a Hegelian dialectical method? What else would Mark’s motives be?

  • 2019-02-07 16:31:45 GMT+0000 - 16:31 | Permalink

    Ever noticed this before?

    Joshua 24: Joshua dies
    Judges 1: “After the death of Joshua…”
    Judges 2: Just kidding! Joshua is still alive! But now he dies again.

    Maybe that’s where they got the Jesus resurrection story from. Jesus and Joshua are the same name. “Look, Jesus is dead! Just kidding!” lol

    • 2019-02-07 18:31:35 GMT+0000 - 18:31 | Permalink

      Maybe with the resurrection appearance claims in the Corinthian Creed that, distraught at Jesus’s death, the disciples desperately searched the Scriptures to make sense of what happened, and thought that like Joshua Jesus wasn’t really gone, and this prompted them to hallucinate.

      • 2019-02-07 18:55:28 GMT+0000 - 18:55 | Permalink

        Or, maybe from a mythicist point of view, the apostles learned of the resurrection of the celestial Jesus from an allegorical reading of the material about Joshua.

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